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Turning the Game Around

Once upon a time there was – no, better: you are a thief who wanders through the cities and deserts of a mythical Persia robbing carpets and small treasures. Like an actor who has just arrived in the world of soap operas, you are good-looking, young and athletic; there is always a few days’ stubble on your suntanned face, making you look like an occasional surfer. Your allies are a sharp scimitar and a donkey. You are the protagonist of the game Prince of Persia[1] and your situation, at the moment, is as follows: you were surprised by a sandstorm and lost sight of the beast, Farah, who was carrying your latest spoils on his back. Unable to see a thing, you advance with difficulty into the abrasive wind from the storm, fall into a canyon and the only reason you don’t break your back is thanks to the extraordinary athletic skills already mentioned.

The camera cuts to a shot of the angelic little toes of a girl trying to escape from armed soldiers running across the harsh sands of the desert. Her flight leads her to jump into the canyon, and she falls on top of you. She’s beautiful, lean, her hair cut with a knife, and she has a hippy-chic look composed of a small white blouse, light and finely worked, and corsair’s shoes made from dark grey twill. Her beautiful face is reminiscent of Natalie Portman’s, with finer and more angular features. Her body is spread out on top of yours. You say, ‘Hey.’ She covers your mouth with her hand until she can be sure the soldiers have lost the trail, looks briefly into your eyes, and runs away.

 

Up until now, you – the player, not the thief – were merely observing the scene, as in a film, but at this instant, the control passes into your hands. The instructions which appear on screen show how to direct the character of the thief in pursuit of the girl using the joystick commands, from a third-person perspective which is one step back from the action.[2] Within a few seconds you learn to walk, look all around you, jump and run along walls like the hero of a kung fu film or a skilled practitioner of Parkour. When you reach the girl, she is surrounded by the soldiers, and you learn to take them on by thrusting, slashing and jumping, combining the three in a remarkably elastic choreography, all by pressing a few buttons. Meanwhile, the characters converse, and from their first words it becomes clear that you, the thief, prefer to communicate by means of an endless spate of narcissistic wisecracks, whereas the girl has no time for fooling around. ‘Why are you following me?’ she wants to know, and you reply, scornfully: ‘I’m not, I’m looking for Farah.’ When she suggests that you fetch your girlfriend and get lost, the seeds of an irrational jealousy can be detected. You explain that Farah is a donkey, and she goes back to thinking that you are an idiot.

 

Two important narrative moments follow: firstly, you fall from a bridge that the soldiers destroyed with a rock. You are falling to your death when the girl performs some kind of magic and, enveloped in luminescent blue ribbons, she floats in the air, grabs your hand and brings you safely back to the cliff edge. The effort weakens her and you lift her in your arms and carry her lovingly to a safer place. In this sequence, the player merely controls the thief’s[3] slow steps while the pair converse automatically. The sudden change in rhythm and control pattern, on top of the interruption of the soundtrack, simultaneously sets up an air of intimacy. The girl confesses that she doesn’t know where her magic powers came from, and says that she needs to get to a certain temple. The soldiers are not trying to kill her – they just want to capture her, on her father’s orders. A little later, in the second important moment, you are forced to confront some more swordsmen, and after defeating them you ask the girl where the temple is. She shows the way and says: ‘You go ahead, I’ll follow.’ And from now on, until the end of the game, it is she who will faithfully follow your footsteps. In the battle that ensues, you discover that you can combine your own fighting moves with the girl’s magic attacks to cause greater damage to your opponents. All of a sudden, you stop acting so narcissistic, and she stops acting so proud. Thus is born the relationship which will be developed over approximately twelve hours of game play.

 

A corpulent, hirsute figure emerges from the top of a cliff and calls the girl by her name, Elika, ordering her to leave. It is her father. You both continue towards the temple, a palace with a giant tree on top. The characters’ chat continues to reveal more details. Ahriman, the god of darkness, is imprisoned within this temple; he was locked away by the god of light, Ormazd, with the help of the Ahura[4], the people who used to inhabit the city. We then understand why Elika seems desperate to reach the Tree of Life that seals Ahriman’s cell: Elika’s father, the king of the Ahura, is seeking to free the malign deity. You both try to stop him, but too late. To Elika’s horror, her father cuts the tree with the sword and Ahriman escapes, immediately trying to corrupt the Ahura’s homeland with demonic beings and a deadly black substance which neutralises the world’s colour and light. With great difficulty, you escape from the crumbling place, and you get out in time to see Ahriman rise up into the apocalyptic sky, roaring in a cavernous voice: ‘I am darkness! I am your end!’

 

You confront Elika with your typical, arrogant sarcasm: ‘Any more of your relatives going to try and kill us? Or is it just your father who wants the end of the world?’ She explains that there is still time to stop Ahriman’s escape. All that’s needed is to get to the ‘Fertile Grounds’ which feed the Tree of Life and restore them with Elika’s magic. You are hesitant to cling to this cause, but you are only trying to get your own way. ‘I was on my way home! I had more gold than you could…’ you shout, inconsolable. ‘I’d have wine! Women! Carpets this thick! Now I’m stuck with an angry God and a crazy woman!’ Elika ignores these outbursts of cheap comedy. She is a serious woman with a mission. She is a princess who wants to save her kingdom. What’s more, she thinks this is all her fault.

 

After all, as we will discover a little further on in the story, Elika died and was brought back to life by her father moments before the game started. This is insinuated in an animated vignette before the sandstorm with which the game begins, with rapid cuts and a nightmarish atmosphere. In it, we see the king conversing with Ahriman. ‘You know what it is that I ask,’ he says, and the god of darkness replies: ‘If you would have your wish, then give me mine.’ And then we see a close up of Elika waking up goggle-eyed, scared, gasping. Embittered, the king negotiated Ahriman’s freedom in exchange for the life of his daughter. The Elika whom we meet in the desert has just been brought back to life at the cost of the total destruction of the kingdom. She cannot live with this guilt and wishes that her people, who were moved to leave by some kind of self-induced diaspora which has not been clearly explained, may return to their land and start again.

 

The beginning of Prince of Persia[5] was described here in detail for a reason: I want to call to attention the fact that it sets out not only the basis of the plot and the motivations of the main characters, but above all the relationship between the two protagonists in a dimension which surpasses the classic idea of narrative which in games takes the form of automatic dialogue and cinematic sequences. You know that Elika needs you because you had to carry her in your arms when she fainted after flying in the air to save you. It’s not something which was said to you, it’s something that you did, controlling the character directly. On the other hand, you know you need Elika because she uses her magic to save you every time you fall to your death or are about to be defeated by an enemy. Another example: in the beginning, you must follow Elika for the game to advance; afterwards, it’s her who follows all of your movements. This can appear fantastical or naïve to anyone who has never experienced playing a game with any narrative complexity, but the fact is that the player feels this difference in a more involved and intimate way than when it is experienced in a way that doesn’t depend on your active interference, as in a book or a film. This involvement is not simply abstract. The narrative evolution makes itself apparent in the nebulous threshold between abstraction and real experience. She began to follow me. She trusts me. I am going to jump into this hole to see her save me.

 

The game’s initial sequences were skilfully programmed so that the player could experience first-hand the link that is born between the protagonists, and understand straight away the rules of the relationship that will stay in place for the duration of the story. This relationship is not only a feature of the plot: it determines what Janet H. Murray calls ‘primitives of participation’, or the most basic forms by which the player is permitted to actively participate in driving the plot in an interactive narrative. This is an essential component of what I just called, somewhat vaguely, ‘a dimension which surpasses the classic idea of narrative’. Over the course of just fifteen minutes of play, Prince of Persia makes it very clear, by means of its primitives of participation, that without each other you and Elika are nothing.

 

 

Immersion, Agency and Adolescence

When I find myself having to defend the narrative force of video games, I like to give the example of a real experience I had in my childhood involving the game Metroid. In this science fiction adventure, we guide a bounty hunter called Samus Aran through the 2D platforms of the hostile and labyrinthine planet Zebes with the aim of destroying a band of Space Pirates. I don’t intend to enter into the details of the story; what matters is that, while we control Samus through battles and exploration, for hours and hours, he wears armour which covers his whole body, until, at the end, after finding and destroying the Mother Brain, Samus – or, to put it another way, you, for the distinction at this stage is to some extent no longer – removes his helmet to reveal that he is really a woman. It would still be years before Lara Croft would herald the era of the action game heroines. At the end of the 1980s, a bounty hunter was, by definition, a man, and the women in computer games were typically like Princess Peach in Super Mario Bros.: princesses to be rescued.

This surprise caught the imaginations of many young gamers like myself. It wasn’t only that Samus was a woman: I had controlled a woman the whole time without knowing. Ultimately, a video game character is the fusion of the data provided by the programme with the active participation of the player who controls them. You are not only imagining or seeing the character. In a certain way, you represent them physically, not like an actor, but as if you possessed a puppet with a predefined set of skills and a destiny to fulfil.

 

Many years later, when I read The Devil to Pay in the Backlands by João Guimarães Rosa[6], I immediately recalled Samus when I got to the part in which Diadorim’s sex is revealed. The surprise in Guimarães Rosa’s novel had been denied to me by the TV Globo series, which kind of ruined the surprise for all Brazilians forever, but what I thought was: ‘Getting to this part without already knowing must be like reaching the end of Metroid without knowing. Wow.’[7]

 

The anecdote makes one fact clear: narrative sublimity is possible in the medium of electronic games, but it’s not only to be found on the plot level. Though the inspired concept of its fantastic universe may have yielded many games and a load of fan-fiction, Metroid is, in itself, dramatically insipid. Where, then, can we find this potential for the sublime? If it wasn’t 600 pages of refined prose that led to such an emotional impact, what was it? For many years, the term ‘gameplay’ has been used in the world of video games to make reference to this quality of narrative pleasure that seems to depend on somewhat unclear notions of interaction, control, fluidity and enjoyment. I will not use this term because it is meaningless; to cite gameplay is to seek an easy way out of a question which is more complex than some would like to acknowledge. Let’s leave it to one side.

 

One of the first and most solid attempts to explain the pleasure of taking part in an interactive narrative was made by Janet Murray in Hamlet on the Holodeck. According to Murray, the narratives made possible by the computer (understood in a generic sense which covers video games, virtual reality and every type of interactive, digital narrative) bring about three distinctive pleasures – immersion, agency and transformation – which, on the one hand, allow continuity with previous narrative traditions, but which become unique under other conditions, especially when combined with each other. Transformation refers to the capacity of putting narratives with multiple plots and roles into movement which then change their form as they are narrated and affected by the subject’s participation. Although this aspect can be found in many computer games, such as MMORPGs[8] (World of Warcraft, Age of Conan, Everquest, etc.), it is not the case with Prince of Persia, a linear, single player game, made to be played alone, controlling a single character. I will focus, therefore, on the other two aspects.

 

Immersion is nothing new. Murray defines it as, ‘The experience of being transported to an elaborately simulated place … regardless of the fantasy content.’ It’s what the descriptions and illustrations in books and the production of art on stage and in cinema studios have done for centuries. Correctly stimulated, our mind devours fantasies and gives itself over totally to them, provided that the immersive trance is not ruined by something that makes us remember that it is only a representation. It’s paradoxical: to keep believing in a world of fantasy and to feel oneself immersed in it, it’s necessary to step back from it in order to preserve it from contamination by reality. This becomes clear when what is called the ‘fourth wall’, a term invented by dramaturges to refer to the separation between the stage and the audience, is violated. When an actor seeks the public’s participation, or a character in a film looks at the camera and says something like, ‘It’s only a movie,’ the immersive trance is fractured. Modern art jokes around with this kind of thing, with varying results.

 

In the world of video games, however, the rules appear to be different. Games are participatory by definition. Without our voluntary and constant participation, they do not happen. When we are talking about narrative involvement in video games, participation and immersion go hand in hand. Participation is not an exception to the rule; it is the rule. What shatters immersion in a video game is suspending the player’s participation. No gamer likes to be guided by a setting or subjected to long sequences which aren’t interactive. They want to press buttons, choose where to go, shoot plastic weapons against the screen or use the movement-sensitive control pad of the Nintendo Wii to strike with it, as if it were a tennis racket or a sword, or to be constantly presented with a world which they must decipher, solve, and actively modify.

 

What Murray calls agency occurs when the player manages to act in this fantasy world, and enjoy the results of these actions in a way that causes pleasure. You look upwards and take in the fabulous visual details of the scene only because you decided to look upwards and executed the corresponding command on the joystick. You hit a virtual ball with your racket using your Wiimote and the virtual ball goes in the direction you intended and – bam! – you’ve just broken your idiot friend’s serve. You shoot into a barrel of diesel oil and it explodes with a vivid animation and the crisp sound of an explosion. Boom! That’s not all: you threw the body of a hidden enemy into the air, and it flies, in flames, and ricochets off a wall, dead, out of your way. You used your sights and pressed a single button; the weapon’s response was immediate, the noise of the bullet vibrated in your ear in a way that was so realistic, the hole appeared in the exact point in the barrel on which you had set your sights, and all these sensational things happened and now you are nearer to saving your own skin, or the world, or rescuing your loved one, or destroying everything for no reason. The objective doesn’t matter, it’s the pleasure of agency. The world reacted deliciously to your intervention. I did that.

 

The sensory payoff made available by the potent combination of immersion and agency explains why so much pleasure is to be had in simply wandering through a game’s environment when its programmers develop it with a minimum level of freedom of movement and artistic refinement. Gamers more given to exploration make a point of finding and investigating every nook and cranny of the virtual worlds they navigate even if this is of no use to the game’s objective. Although this aspect intensified with the evolution of the quality of the graphics of 3D worlds, it still existed in more rudimentary games such as Pitfall on the Atari 2600. There was a NES game, an RPG platform game called Iron Sword, which fascinated me when I was a child. I never understood how to play it too well, and I had immense difficulty in passing the stages and completing the objectives, but its 2D scenery was vast and mysterious, with interminable mountains and trenches full of strange beings, noises and objects, and I spent many hours simply exploring the limits of that scene, jumping from one place to another, trying not to die, merely because controlling that armed mannequin and seeing the things that appeared was incredibly stimulating for my imagination.

 

Some more recent games explore with great efficiency this atmospheric element of narrative pleasure. One of these is the acclaimed Half-Life 2, from 2004, a first-person shoot ‘em up in which we take on the part of the scientist Gordon Freeman, who is fighting in Earth’s resistance against invaders from an alien civilisation known as Combine. One of Half-Life 2’s distinctive characteristics is the way it stays in a first-person interactive perspective throughout. We see what Freeman sees and nothing more, and control of the character is never taken from the player. When someone looks into Freeman’s eye, they look into the eye of the player sitting on an armchair in the lounge. This profound, inconspicuous immersion is reinforced by stunning and elaborate graphics, and by a kind of electric pulse in the narrative rhythm, which alternates between moments of exploration, shooting, and interaction with other characters. At different points in the original game and the two extra episodes released so far, tense sequences of combat and escape are succeeded by moments of calm in which the player finally finds themself safe and sound in an elevated place from where they can contemplate the vast, dazzling landscape they just hurried through.

 

The developers at Valve knew very well what they were doing. The tranquil sight of this beautiful scenery after situations of great tension makes for a sublime experience. Schopenhauer, in Metaphysics of the Beautiful: ‘The feeling of the sublime is distinguished from that of the beautiful only by an addition, namely, the exaltation beyond the known hostile relation of the contemplated subject to the will.’ The aesthetic sublime arises from the unexpected position of being safe before something which – we instinctively feel – could annihilate us: the tsunami seen from the helicopter, the starry sky seen in the company of someone dear to you, absolute silence away from hostile surroundings. In a video game, every area has hidden threats, and precaution is the standard mode for the player. When the game offers us rest and a beautiful view, the sensory pleasure is extremely real and intense. Other recent examples of games which explore this pleasure in detail include Flower, a brilliant independent title for PlayStation 3, and Uncharted 2, also exclusive to PS3. In the latter, after hours of frenetic action, the hero Nathan Drake wakes up, wounded, not knowing where he is and wanders through a Tibetan village deep in the heart of the Himalayas. The scenery is magnificent. There are no enemies, only a peaceful community with which we can interact with no apparent objective. You kick a ball back to the children and further on you find them hidden behind a wall, waiting for you, and their childish laughter cuts through the silence of the altitude when you discover them. Immersion and agency. Because of these two things, when you later return from exploring in the snow and find the village in flames and covered with slain bodies, you will feel true anger and sadness, and the combat sequence which starts will be played with a genuine desire for vengeance.

 

Prince of Persia puts the immersive function of the game’s atmosphere to use for narrative ends very efficiently. You only need to see a few static images from the game to comprehend the beauty of its characters and scenery. There are verdant valleys, wooden mills accumulating to form megalomaniacal structures, cliffs and waterfalls leading to impossibly high towers from which you can see enormous, gravity-defying balloons. And the details! Butterflies of various colours touching the flower fields and flying around the dual protagonists, grilles with intricate oriental motives filtering the yellow light of a low sun. When we move, the game enchants us with frequent exhibits of artistic virtuosity. The desire to delight the player with images, sound and movement is so embedded into this game that there are two secret trophies[9] which can be obtained by simply walking to the edges of planks in elevated places to contemplate the view.

 

The problem, remember, is that Ahriman escaped and corrupted everything with the already mentioned fatal black substance which neutralises the world’s light and colour. In practice, this means that the diverse areas of the kingdom are ashy, cold, lifeless and taken over by cavities and blisters crawling with a lethal black goo. To restore each area – or, to use the language of video games, complete each level you, thief, must cross through the danger-filled landscapes, kill monsters summoned by Ahriman and get to the fertile grounds, where Elika can transfer the magic energy she brought with her from the hereafter to the setting. Reaching these grounds is not easy and will demand a spectacular array of acrobatics, fighting, and problem solving. Elika is by your side. Whenever you fall, she saves you just in time, the result being that you never die. During certain manoeuvres, such as climbing up vines on cliff faces, she will come up elegantly on your hindquarters and will be forced to hear you saying things like, ‘You’re heavier than you look.’ You’re just that kind of guy.

 

When Elika finally manages to restore a fertile ground, the colour and life return to that whole level. This happens in real time using an enchanting animation effect which expands in circles, taking in the visible scenery and revealing the natural and architectural beauty which was previously hidden. The feeling of taking an active part in the game’s scenery, in such a radical way, doesn’t only soak the player in the pleasures of the immersion/agency cocktail, it also reinforces your understanding of Elika’s anxieties. With each restoration we see and feel what she, ultimately, is fighting for. The princess’s kingdom is so beautiful it hurts, and discovering bit by bit each new environment of this uninhabited world at Elika’s side causes that link between the characters to grow and grow – or should that be our link. A mythical subtext – or even biblical, at the risk of overstepping the point – emerges little by little as this paradise is uncovered by its only inhabitants.[10]

 

That’s not all: after the magic restoration, Elika faints, and wakes up straight away, very weakened. Then dozens of luminous spheres emerge, spreading to every corner of the landscape. You have to reach and collect them in order to replenish Elika’s vital energy. It’s a mechanical task, complicated and, at least to start with, absurd. At this point, many gamers will curse Ubisoft for having extended the game’s duration artificially by forcing us to complete a meaningless task, one hardly made up for by the beauty of the scenery and the satisfaction of vertiginously running through it with the fluid movement of the character under your control. Seeing the pair of heroes respond to our commands with such elastic and efficient actions, in a double choreography which fills the eyes and affords a pleasurable navigation through the kingdom of the Ahura, greatly facilitates the permanence of the player in the immersive trance. But without a clear purpose this magic can start to become undone from the first feeling of frustration, such as the inability to reach that platform where the three luminous spheres which I need to collect to go on are located. Gradually, however, as the relationship with Elika continues to strengthen, the motivation to fulfil the game’s demand begins to take a more definite form. At each new level, it becomes more unpleasant to see Elika in trouble. There was a moment at which I ceased to see this stage as an obligation. There was no question of wanting or not wanting to do it. I had to help my companion because I liked her.

 

The way that Prince of Persia orchestrates the establishment of an emotional link between the player/thief and Elika goes beyond the mutual dependence manifested in the game’s actual mechanics. There is another, equally crucial resource: the system of dialogues. More often than not, in adventure games such as these, the characters converse when the programmed script wants them to converse. The conversations are put into action at certain points in the narrative and the player only has to hear them. This is how it is, for example, in the games that form the Uncharted series, which try so hard to be action films that they succeed, for better or worse.[11] In Prince of Persia, there are some dialogues in key situations which start automatically, principally between the protagonists and other characters. However, the greater part of the dialogues between you and Elika only happen if the player approaches her and presses a specific button. This unleashes dialogue which will only go on if you continue to squeeze the button from time to time.

 

You don’t need to do this. It’s possible to reach the end of the game without there being any banter between Elika and the thief, and ninety per cent of what they say sounds like pointless chatter. But it is in these optional dialogues that the majority of the back story, the personality, the ideas and the desires of the protagonists come to the surface. By opting for this system of activating dialogues, which at first sight seems crude and unnecessary, the staff at Ubisoft Montreal were really demonstrating a profound knowledge of the power of agency in game narratives. To put it simply: listening to a dialogue passively and listening to a dialogue activated by a button which you pressed when you wanted to are very different experiences. This may sound absurd, but it isn’t. It’s difficult to explain, and difficult to argue in favour of such an esoteric proposition, but when we press that button, it’s as if we are actively participating in the dialogue. The words in conversations belong to scriptwriters, not to the player, but they become his as well when he presses the button.

 

A good part of the thief’s speech, or rather, your speech, continues in the narcissistic, sarcastic vein we have already mentioned. This rascally, know-it-all persona infuriated many Prince of Persia players. In fact, most of the time you sound like a moronic adolescent undergoing a violent hormonal transition. You say things like, ‘Settle down, find a girl, adventuring will kill you. I think my mother was right,’ and, ‘Gods, monsters, crazy women… What’s the difference?’ You provoke Elika like a love-struck boy who, frustrated at being incapable of declaring his love, offends the object of his affection with idiocies like, ‘You’re pretty fit for a princess.’ You don’t stop whining about the loss of your beast of burden, the stolen gold and the misfortune of being in a position where you are risking your life to help a beautiful, idealistic girl take on a malign god. Your practical, evasive stance contrasts with Elika’s sincerity and idealism. This is all emphasized by Nolan North, who voices the character in a way that evokes what he really is: a combination of Han Solo and Indiana Jones with an overgrown kid who does extreme sports.

 

Elika is very different. Her firm discourse is marked by good intentions, by her dedication to her people’s story, and by guilt for a destructive act she did not commit. She thinks you are a clown, yes, but a brave clown with a good heart, and she doesn’t hesitate to tell you details from her life. She heroically endures your ill-timed, awkward chat-up lines. In truth, the dynamic is pretty infantile. Here is a typical dialogue between you and Elika:

ELIKA: Why are you doing this? Why are you helping me? You’re not doing it for me, are you? I’ve seen how you look at me… I’ve seen that look before…

PRINCE: Now look, you’re cute, but not ‘stay to fight a dark god’ cute.

ELIKA: Would you have helped… if my father had asked you?

PRINCE: He’s not that cute either.

Or:

 

PRINCE: You don’t act like a princess.

ELIKA: How do princesses act?

PRINCE: All the money, none of the sense. Don’t know which end of a camel eats and which end—

ELIKA: I know which end of a camel does what.

PRINCE: A princess. A real princess.

ELIKA: What about you? Who are you?

PRINCE: There’s not a lot to tell.

In spite of this, neither of the two is as flat and defined as they seem. There is a motive behind the thief’s cynical knack of saying things he doesn’t mean just to get a response, and there is a motive behind Elika’s idealistic stubbornness: they are symptoms of contemporary adolescence projected onto characters in a story set in a very free version of ancient Persia, and perhaps this anachronism explains the irritation felt by so many players. Nevertheless, adolescence is a characteristic of many video game protagonists, as they allow for a narrative model of character transformation which young people naturally identify with.[12] But instead of shielding adolescence behind the more resolved virtues of adult heroism, as is the done thing, Prince of Persia treats it with a certain aesthetic realism which may seem uncomfortable to some. In any case, the truth is more nuanced, and these two, like all good characters, change throughout the narrative. Not for nothing did Andy Walsh, author of Prince of Persia’s dialogues, win the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Games Award for his work on the game. Even in the above excerpts, it’s possible to catch on to insinuations such as Elika’s veiled attraction and the general decency which the thief hides behind his arrogant young man act. It’s not enough to press the dialogue button. You must listen carefully.

 

There is a secret story being told not only between the lines of what the characters say, but in the space between one jump and another, in the laborious capture of each light sphere, in each cooperative move in battle and in the sublime, stunning void of those restored landscapes; a story whose foundations are laid by the two great themes which span the human narrative from primordial times, which gave strength to innumerable stories told through books, theatre, films, paintings, voice, musical instruments and cave walls, and which now come to give strength to the stories told in computer games.

 

 

Love, Death and Algorithms

In 2007, a 30-year-old programmer named Jason Rohrer created a sensation in the independent games community with a free mini-game called Passage.[13] With a duration of exactly five minutes and primitive graphics which hark back to the era of 8-bit games, Passage puts you in control of the body of a man who moves from left to right in a narrow strip of scenery. There are no instructions of any kind. Then your avatar bumps into a girl standing still at the top of the screen. If you touch her, she stays with you as your wife, accompanying you until the end of the game. As you move through the labyrinthine backdrop, encased in a melancholy digital melody, avoiding dead-end alleys and trying to reach treasures which gain you points, you perceive strange things. The left edge of the backdrop, that is, the bit you’re leaving behind and which was previously perfectly defined, is becoming more and more blurry; the right edge, which you are heading towards, to still unknown places which emerge from a large blur, starts to become more and more defined. You – and your companion, if you have opted to take her with you – are also changing. To start with it is difficult to perceive the nature of the change, but by the second or maybe the third minute of the game, it will become clear: you are getting older. The backdrop is becoming more and more discoloured. Each step forward is worth points, but progressing in a straight line will prevent you from exploring interesting areas. That’s not all: you are getting slower with the passing of time. You try to find out how to avoid this, but nothing can be done other than to go forward. Alone, you occupy less space, you walk faster and you can get through narrow pathways; accompanied by your wife, you must take diversions which delay or even stop you altogether, but each treasure you find yields double the amount of points. It’s not possible to alter your choice once made: opting for solitude or marriage is definitive. At just over four minutes, your wife dies. You keep going without her, alone in the seconds you have left. When five minutes have passed, now old and worn away and almost unable to walk, with the past a big blur behind you, the miniscule future ahead and, amongst other things, an array of partially completed endeavours, or things you should have done, you curl over and die. There is no defeat or victory, only the end. Game over.

Described in this way, Passage is merely one more ingenious representation of the inexorability of the passage of time and of death, something which we are tired of – or which we never tire of – encountering in art of all types and from all eras. But there was something in this minigame which had never been seen before, something which brought tears to the eyes of many unsuspecting players. Testimonies on sites such as Destructoid mention sensations of emptiness and sadness (‘I loved it… and I’m feeling sort of hollow inside’; ‘I felt my heart sink when my wife died’; ‘The game depressed me and made me want to hurry up and find a well-paying job. I’m not even joking.’), exultation (‘For some reason this game put me in a really good mood’) and players projecting the experience within the game onto their own personal lives (‘I just walked straight only picking up chests I saw … now I’m depressed that I’m doing the same thing in real life.’)[14] How was a game with such limited graphics and sound, and with no text or conventional narrative, capable of causing such a huge impact?

 

In order to find the answer, it’s necessary to understand that computer games are narratives of procedure, or to put it another way, a set of rules which must be learnt and skillfully applied to achieve a pre-determined result. A game’s plot can simply be a succession of episodes which make sense together, a classic narrative, but the game itself is not that. It is a scheme which must be carried out. In other words, the deep-reaching logic behind every computer game is the algorithm, which the Merriam Webster dictionary defines as ‘a step-by-step procedure for solving a problem or accomplishing some end, especially by a computer’. To play is, first and foremost, to unwrap and master an algorithm. Regardless of the story, of whether the game is realistic or a medieval fantasy or science fiction, whether it does or doesn’t have captivating characters and funny or dramatic episodes, what we must do in a computer game is:

1. Discover what must be done;

2. Discover by means of which procedures the programme allows this to be done;

3. Master the carrying out of these procedures and

4. Do what needs to be done.

Put this way, playing a game appears to be as stimulating as mending a pipe or treating a toothache, but don’t forget our trio of immersion/agency/transformation, the great sensory and aesthetic pleasure that video games are able to provide, and the combination of this procedure-based element with the classic episodic narrative of books, films etc. The most important thing, however, is that we are talking about procedural narratives. This means that procedures can also have a narrative function. To interpret the rules of a game and carry them out is not necessarily a mechanical task; it can have – and in the case of computer games must have – an allegorical function. This is the key to the expressive potential of video games; the rules of the game tell a story.

 

The Australian critic McKenzie Wark not only understood this, he tried to take the idea to its logical conclusion in his provocative book Gamer Theory[15]. Wark coins the term ‘allegorithm’ to designate, in the context of games, the computational algorithm imbued with allegorical power. The intuitive relationship we have with the finite set of rules and outcomes which control a game can be projected onto the infinite set of rules and outcomes in real life, generating a narrative parable. Games can seem like crude models of the world, but their strict patterns can evoke the most enigmatic and entropic patterns of real life, and in this sense we can also see them as digital representations that are untainted by a ‘messy’ reality. Wark:

From the point of view of representation, the game is always inadequate to everyday life. A Sim in The Sims is a simple animated character, with few facial features or expressions. In The Sims 2 they seem a little more lifelike, but the improvement of the representation in some particular ways only raises the standards by which it appears to fall short in others. From the point of view of allegorithm, it all seems more the other way around. Everyday life in gamespace seems an imperfect version of the game. The gamespace of everyday life may be more complex and variegated, but it seems much less consistent, coherent and fair.

The conversion of real life experiences into schematised procedural narratives, which can be interpreted and executed until clear and defined objectives are struck on, is an attribute which distinguishes computer games from every other form of narrative. It’s from this, and not only from the aesthetic pleasure generated by the game itself – image, music, text, spoken dialogue, animation and other aspects recycled from other medium – that the pleasure of the game arises. By stating that life, with its high levels of chaos, inaccessible information and anarchy of outcome, is a bad copy of the computer game, and not the other way around, Wark is apparently being absurdly provocative, but in a way that contains some truth. The computer game offers tangible objects to our desire to interpret and intervene in the world. In games, every experience is quantifiable, and where the creation of meaning is concerned the participatory process through which the plot is unravelled matters more than the plot itself.

 

Here, then, is the key to understanding Passage’s strength: the game is allegorithm in its pure state. In it, the process of discovering the game’s rules and trying to put them into action is the whole point: we only learn to live by living; we have to make decisions like whether or not to marry a woman before we have the necessary experience and perspective to do so; choosing one thing always means renouncing others; you can’t go backwards; each instant is the outcome of all your previous actions; the past fades away; love comforts; the end is lonely and inevitable. What makes the game moving isn’t the touching performance of the two protagonists, beautiful images or words forming a virtuosic stream of consciousness, it’s the act of trying to discover what’s happening, attempting to give a direction to the story and, in an instant of epiphany – when you understand that your character is ageing and that nothing can be done about it – perceiving that the fleeting algorithm is an allegory for your own mortality. The meaning is contained in the act of playing.

 

When I played Passage for the first time (the only time that counts with this game), I passed straight by the girl. I simply didn’t notice she was there, waiting for me to either take her by the hand or decide to live my life alone. On my second go, I discovered her existence and for a few instants I felt, very clearly and profoundly, that I had let the love of my life pass by unnoticed. I was repeating the experience and I had another chance, something which real life doesn’t allow, but my discovery made me feel an irreversible loss. I projected the way I played onto my own subjective experience and I obtained a particular story and a particular emotion. This is procedural narrative. We are only beginning to discover what it’s capable of.

 

What’s already clear at this stage is that love and death are imposing themselves as the two grand themes present in the games that are exploring new territories in procedural narrative and, in doing so, paving the way for a language of their own which can explore all of the medium’s expressive potential. The examples range from small-scale independent games like Passage to blockbusters like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, which includes two potent sequences in which the player dies from a first-person point of view. One of them, in which we are forced to take on the part of a soldier who crawls to his death after the detonation of an atomic bomb, is already an instant classic in the history of games. Gradually, death in the context of video games is ceasing to be simply an aspect of the game’s mechanics – the symbolic punishment given out to the player who fails to complete an objective – and is turning into a profound theme located deep in the plots and algorithms in order to emotionally affect the player.

 

In this sense, Prince of Persia was pioneering in removing altogether the death of the avatar from its system of play. As I have already mentioned, the thief/you never die(s). Elika will save you every time, using her magical endowments to catapult you back to a safe point in the scene, generally before the last challenge you were trying to overcome. A large part of the gamer community crucified this aspect of the game, accusing Prince of Persia of being too easy. In truth, it merely consolidated a tendency which had been in the making for a long time, from the introduction of ‘save games’ in the 8-bit console generation, to the more recent advent of checkpoints, or narrative markers at which you are ‘resuscitated’ after ‘dying’ so that you can continue playing without going back to the start. Instead of letting you die and informing you of this with a message or a black screen, Prince of Persia punishes your lack of skill by moving you back in time very slightly in a way that is incorporated elegantly into the flow of the game and the plot. The fact that Elika always saves you has immense significance for the direction the game eventually ends up taking, and reinforces a mutual dependency between the characters which the player is not merely informed about, but which he also experiences in practice every time he makes the thief mistime a jump or take too much of a beating.

 

On the subject of love, well, at this point it’s obvious to everyone that you will fall in love with Elika. Instances of love were always common in video games, although manifestations of platonic and chaste love predominate (the Zelda series, for example, always irritated me because of the way Link’s amorous feelings were always left unsatisfied), with very few occurrences of consummated passion, and almost no instances of casual sex (the formidable No More Heroes, for Wii, is a recent exception). More common still, perhaps, are instances of platonic love felt by the player for the character. I myself am not remotely embarrassed to admit that I fell slightly in love with Jade from Beyond Good & Evil, an emotion which only emerged after the game ended; I had been controlling her up to that point, which confused things somewhat. I also wouldn’t be upset in the slightest if I were to find myself alone with Sylvia Christel from No More Heroes. But I digress. The fact is that love, like death, has taken on new forms in the games of the last ten years. Some creators have tried to make it so that the mechanics of their games make the player develop, on the procedural level, an attachment that is analogous to that which their avatar feels for the love interest on the story level. When love and death are intelligently combined on the interdependent plot and procedural narrative dimensions, the result can be an unforgettable emotional experience.

 

This brings us ineluctably to Shadow of the Colossus, released in 2005 and considered a landmark in the history of ‘games of art’. Developed by the venerable Fumito Ueda’s Team Ico, Colossus relates the adventures of Wander, a solitary knight who carries the body of his fallen beloved to a distant land which is home to a deity capable of bringing the dead back to life. The deity, manifesting itself as a cavernous voice which soars from the top of the temple, bargains with the hero: if he kills the sixteen colossi who live in the area, the girl will be resurrected. I won’t enter into details regarding the game’s plot because I consider it sacred – I feel guilty enough revealing, as I am about to, the ending of Prince of Persia. I recommend you obtain access to a PlayStation and play Shadow of the Colossus at least once in your lifetime.

 

I need only mention that the game builds strong emotional bonds between the player and two characters: the dead maiden and Agro, the horse who is Wander’s only companion in the entirety of his long explorations of the adventure’s beautiful and vast setting. In both cases, the emotional bond burgeons with exquisite elements of immersion and agency which arise from the act of playing itself. The game’s spun-out introduction shows Agro leading Wander and his indiscernible load through dangerous paths which cross over majestic and unusual-looking scenery. It becomes clear that the hero has undertaken a long and extremely difficult journey to get to this temple, and when he dismounts from the horse, placing the load on the altar for us to discover that it’s actually a dead girl, the character’s love for her makes a mark on the player that is carried through all of the battles against the colossi. Accordingly, when he realises that these giant creatures – which require huge amounts of exploration to be located, and similar levels of strategy and skill to be defeated – are peaceful and indifferent, and that their aggressiveness is only aroused by our egotistical intervention, the strength of Wander’s love makes its mark on the player procedurally.[16] Having to kill the colossi one by one, against our will, has the effect of making the character’s feelings for the fallen girl gradually cease to be the scapegoat for our actions and become the player’s own feelings. For many, this dynamic throws up moral questions: do I have the right to kill these beautiful innocent creatures in the name of my love? The moment a thought like this passes through the head of whoever’s playing, the character’s feelings, which are a component of the plot, also take control of the player.

 

With regard to the horse, the friendship emerges solely from the plot’s procedural sphere. He is our only companion for the whole journey and the only living being we see, with the exception of some birds and lizards. Agro aids us in battle and follows us from afar when we stray from him. He neighs and become agitated when we are in danger and comes running towards us when we call him by his name using a specific joystick command. Another command lets us stroke the animal’s neck. We pass through enormous reaches of an uninhabited landscape upon the back of our faithful companion, controlling him with commands which replicate several subtleties of real horse riding. The gradual, subterranean building of this emotional link between the horse and the player will be explored dramatically in a key episode of the plot that takes place towards the end. I should say what happens, for the sake of my argument, but I won’t. The power of this moment in the narrative is comparable to things the majority of us expect to find only in literature or cinema. I would place it on the same level as an episode that occurs around page 125 of Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing, involving the protagonist, Billy, and a she-wolf. It’s the sudden, tragic and devastating evocation of an affection we didn’t know existed until that instant.

 

In any case, Shadow of the Colossus is a case in point, showing how the articulation between plot and procedural narrative can create a huge emotional impact, with its roots in questions of love and death. Prince of Persia, released more than three years later, owes many of its features to the opportunities opened up by this predecessor. The influences are clear for all to see: in the beautiful, vast, uninhabited settings; the importance of immersive exploration and the characters’ companionship on the procedural level in order to create an affection which evolves simultaneously in both the plot and in the player’s feelings; in the employment, with dramatic results, of changes of perspective and sudden transformations in the primitives of participation or the avatars’ control methods (for example, when Prince of Persia limits us, during a section of the introduction, to holding the weakened Elika in our lap, as described in the beginning of this essay) and finally, in the use of death – and the price of coming back – as a way of propelling the narrative.

 

 

Algorithm and Plot in Prince of Persia

A thief lays aside his egotistical and hedonistic fixations in order to help a princess who wants to stop the destruction of her kingdom after her father resurrected her in exchange for setting a malign god free. The thief helps the princess because, deep down, he is altruistic and compassionate, and because she never fails to save him, rescuing him from fatal drops and attacks with her magic powers. The princess helps the thief because she needs him to replenish her vital energy after she channels magic powers to restore each corrupted fertile ground. United by this mutual dependency and by a growing affection for each other, the pair make their way past cliffs, towers and supernatural adversaries with an acrobatic grace of movement, turning shadow into light and revealing the visual beauty of this kingdom which has been abandoned by its people.

On the one hand, the gradual construction of this narrative, as it heads towards its climax, reveals itself on the procedural level. The player guides the thief and Elika through a map divided into four principal areas, each one consisting of a web of places/levels which must be restored until you can access the battle against one of the four Corrupted, antagonistic characters who are confronted at the end of each area.[17] The outline is made clear to the player within a few hours of play. You choose a level from the map, you try to make your way through it with acrobatics and fighting moves, you reach the fertile ground and you restore it. After that, you explore the restored level again to collect the luminous spheres with which you gain access to places which were previously unreachable, and also to the hiding places of the Corrupted. The primitives of participation reinforce the abandonment of this world that constitutes the game’s space (it’s not possible to interact with it in any way other than by travelling through it and, with the exception of the enemies you eventually face, it’s populated only by butterflies; after the introduction, you will never see another human being in the game, except for Elika’s father) and the interdependence between the main characters (the furthest jumps can only be executed with a little push from Elika, she clings to you to scale big walls, etc.). When all four areas of the kingdom have been restored and the four Corrupted have been defeated, you return to the temple and face Ahriman in the final battle.

 

On the other hand, the construction is also revealed on the level of the linear plot, shown principally in non-interactive cut scenes and in the dialogues you have with Elika. Parts of these conversations are automatic, and parts are activated when you voluntarily execute the dialogue command, and new blocks of conversation are unlocked after the completion of certain specific stages of the game, so that there is a pre-determined narrative progression. In Prince of Persia, the way the progression of the story is wedded to the procedural narrative is exemplary. In other words, the act of playing and the gradual unravelling of the story work in perfect synchrony to reinforce what really matters: the development of the thief and Elika as complex characters and, above all, the establishment of a consistent link between them. There is an important moment, for example, when the thief finally reveals that he has no family or home to return to, having previously resisted the subject despite his companion’s persistent attempts to find out.

 

Nevertheless, the majority of the revealing conversations have their origin in the sexual tension between the two. It is the thief who openly hits on Elika over the course of the game, but his witty one-liners never seem to be of any substance. They are said merely to provoke and are far removed from any kind of deeply-felt desire. Elika tries to acidly repel the thief’s taunts, yet it is the princess who shows, on various occasions, that she is truly interested in you. The thief is talking about being patient in order to overcome some obstacle, and she faces him seductively, and says, very suggestively: ‘Patience brings its own rewards.’ Your reply is: ‘So does walking into a harem covered in chocolate.’ Typical. And what about this conversation:

 

Elika: Who’s out there waiting for you?

Prince: Whole world full of people.

Elika: Is there no one you’ve got close to?

Prince: Trust yourself and you don’t need to.

Elika: Trusting your own judgement can get lonely.

Prince: You rely on someone else, they’ll just let you down.

Elika: You haven’t let me down.

Prince: You haven’t known me long enough.

Poor Elika, too shy and serious to confess that she is simply besotted with you. And poor you, too narcissistic and facetious to detect the desires of the adorable princess and do something about it. This dynamic extends throughout the whole story. The playboyesque thief shows more and more that he is a naïve young buck, though determined and altruistic. He declares on more than one occasion that he is helping Elika so that he doesn’t die in Ahriman’s clutches, but it seems that, at the end of the day, he only wants to help the girl, and not because of her generous neckline. And Elika slowly reveals herself to be something more than the noble and resolved woman who wants to put the evil in the world to right, and has no time for childish flirting. It makes you want to give the thief a slap in the face. Look at her! If you stop talking complete bullshit for a second she’ll be all yours! Elika has been alone for a long time. She just came back from the dead for god’s sake! And as if that wasn’t enough:

 

Prince: Now it’s your turn. Tell me something about you.

Elika: Like what?

Prince: I don’t know… something like… your last boyfriend?

Elika: Never had one.

Prince: Never?

Elika: Never.

And the small talk comes to a halt. But if you press the button that activates dialogues, if you are going to insist, this follows:

 

Prince: If you never had a boyfriend… then…

Elika: I’m very well read.

Prince: But sometimes it’s better to experience in person.

 The princess who wants to save the world only knows about love from books, goodness me. And she’s dropping one hint after another. And yet, a little later:

 

Prince: Well, here we are… the both of us… in the dark…

[The shadow monsters screech]

Elika: Saved by the yell.

The sexual tension between the pair of protagonists advances by centimetres in curt instances of revelation and then comes to a standstill during long periods of hilarious dissimulation until we get to one of the most important scenes of the game, one in which all of the narrative features – immersion, agency, subversion of the procedural expectations that have been established – come together to seal a bond which had been coming together in almost imperceptible increments. You are about to fight one of the four Corrupted, the perverse Concubine, in the tower where she lives. A thousand years ago, the Concubine was a powerful woman whose husband was stolen by another woman and ended up losing her beauty and her social prestige. Afterwards she sold her soul to Ahriman in exchange for powers of illusion.[18] When the player enters into combat with her she tries, in all her apparitions, to seduce the thief and demoralise Elika. When you arrive at the top of the tower, Concubine captures Elika and uses her powers to make a circle formed of several copies of the princess. You have to discover which is the real Elika. The task seems impossible. They are all identical and disappear when you get close or try to strike them with your sword, reappearing as soon as you step back. The Concubine laughs and provokes you. You thought you liked her? Thought you knew her? But you’re incapable of saying which is the real one. The situation is exasperating for the player, until he realises what he needs to do. You must throw yourself from the top of the tower. A jump to your death. But Elika has been saving you for the whole of the adventure, and this time won’t be any different: she uses her magic powers of flight to rescue you and, with that, breaks the Concubine’s spell of illusion. Linear and procedural narrative brilliantly articulated to tell a story. The plot shines a light on the mode of play; the mode of play shines light on the plot. You idiot’, says Elika. ‘I knew you’d catch me,’ responds the thief, and at that moment he knows, and you know, that there is nothing greater than this mutual bond that unites the two of you. At least within the game’s algorithm.

 

Yes, because all the emotional power of this scene depends on the algorithm. The emotions only occurred because you were immersed in a procedural narrative limited by a defined set of rules. Having interpreted, mastered and applied all these rules in order to pursue the goal of restoring the kingdom and imprisoning Ahriman, your relationship with the non-playable character, Elika, reached such a level that you can, first of all, deduce that jumping to your death is the only way of making her come out from the trap and, secondly, be emotionally affected by what you just did and by the outcomes of this act. If it’s difficult to imagine the sensation I have described, to convince yourself of its intensity, that’s because the transposition of this experience into the form of text is impossible. In this scene, Prince of Persia provides us with a complete example of something that is only possible in a video game. An emotion which can only come about because you played.

 

The majority of gamers don’t even realise that the procedural narrative is what really absorbs and fascinates them when they dedicate hours to their favourite games. That doesn’t mean that the characters and plot are interchangeable or disposable – on the contrary, they are essential in order to mask the fact that we are interpreting and executing an algorithm. The plot’s role is to supply us with everything the algorithm is incapable of supplying: a motive, a coherent beginning and end, a moral dilemma, a key to link the procedural narrative to a fantasy universe or a specific episode from the real world. But what we are playing is the game. What moves us, in the last instance, is the pleasure made available by the interpretation of this specific set of rules, by the discovery of the ways by which we can interact with this fictitious world, by the progressive learning and acquisition of new skills, which, depending on the game, allow us to do our bit in order to lead the programme to its final state, to the story’s conclusion, to the carrying out of a special task, to gaining the higher score, to the exhaustion of every possibility, to the exploration of the entire space of the game, to the creative use of variables. This is why so many game plots seem formulaic and totally bound up with the programming, and this is why making films into games and vice versa results in terrible games and terrible films. Wark: ‘While other media present the world as if it were for you to look at, the game engine presents worlds as if they were not just for you to look at but for you to act upon in a way that is given.’ The plot serves the algorithm. There’s a good reason why when we want to find something out about a new, as yet unknown game, the most common question isn’t, ‘What’s the game about?’ or, ‘What happens in the game?’, but, ‘What’s the game like?’ or, ‘What do you have to do in this game?’

 

Behind the apparent lightness in tone, an impression given primarily by the thief’s deceptively banal conversation, Prince of Persia’s plot is in truth quite rich, containing layers and intricacies which can escape the casual player. All Elika wanted was to save the kingdom. She didn’t ask to come back to life, and wants to revert the damage she caused. At the end of the game, after restoring all of the fertile grounds, we return to the temple and find the king, now totally dominated by the Ahriman’s corrupting forces. ‘I forgive you,’ she says to the father who sacrificed everything to bring her back to life, and he, already converted into an advocate of Ahriman, replies: ‘Then let us live. Let us free. There is no reason to fear… to fight. I only wanted you to live.’ Elika protests: ‘You took my life. You twisted everything I lived for.’ The king’s voice blends in with the shadowy voice of Ahriman and the two keep trying to convince the princess to let them go, but Elika attacks her father and the final fight begins. We control the thief/Elika in the battle, but we see the action from Ahriman’s point of view. It’s not the first time the game will try to force the player to put himself in the god of darkness’s place, as if trying to create a breach through which a perverse compassion can emerge. At several moments, we hear Ahriman’s voice whispering things like, ‘What injury have I done to you, that you have not done to me?’ It’s curious to note that the good deity, Ormazd, seems weak and neglectful, from what we can gather in the episodes from the history of the Ahura which Elika related throughout the game. Such details bring us to suspect that the view Elika holds of Ahriman may simply be one of several possible interpretations. Viewed as a whole, the game appears to suggest a possibility which conflicts with Elika’s convictions: that evil is an integral part of the world, and that trying to keep it prisoner may come at too great a cost. None of this is put explicitly, but the clues are there, and each player will give them the importance he feels is due. For the interpretation of the game proposed here, such speculation will have an important role.

 

Finally, after a long defensive face-off, Elika enters into Ahriman’s jaws and frees the blue energy, destroying the monster. Stunned, you get up and see the small and luminous Tree of Life. ‘We did it! Elika, we did it!’, you shout, elated, as you see Elika getting up by the side of the tree. But your smile gives way to disquiet. Ahriman’s voice resounds in the air: ‘Choose life…’ Another voice, more feminine, presumably Ormazd’s, suggests the opposite: ‘Choose death…’ There is no end to the irony, the god of darkness inciting the princess to life, the god of light condemning her to death. But she knew what she would do from the start, and in a certain way the thief also must have had some idea, just as the player – and the reader of this text – must also have done.

 

Elika transfers her last drops of energy to the Tree of Life, imprisons Ahriman and dies. You realised what was going to happen in the last hundredth of a second before you could have stopped it. Now you lift her up in your arms delicately. It seems like the end, but the game unexpectedly puts you in control once more, only with limited movements: you can only move extremely slowly, carrying Elika’s body. We see, from behind your avatar, the supple hair and the bare feet of the princess swaying, inert. The sequence mirrors the beginning one, in which you carry her just after discovering that she has magical powers, and the same feeling of agency which before signified the beginning of a partnership is now associated with the end of a lived relationship. Perhaps you think: This girl was dead the whole time. She couldn’t live carrying the weight of all that destruction. So beautiful, good and mysterious. You will feel her absence. Her death may have been a foregone conclusion, but the bond which emerged between the two of you wasn’t. You must carry Elika through a corridor that seems endless while the credits roll on the screen like in a film. It’s cruel. But what can you do. The end.

 

But then you come out of the temple and what immediately calls your attention isn’t the view of the rocky desert, but the stone altar situated in front of the great door. The game credits stop rolling, you lose control again and, in a non-interactive sequence, the thief carefully places Elika’s body on the altar. Then he has a vision: he sees the king’s conversation with Ahriman, the bargain in which his daughter’s life was exchanged for the demon’s freedom. The vision ends, and from up high we see the corpse of Elika in front of us on the altar. The camera cuts to a head-on shot: the thief looking protractedly at Elika, his fingers working a knot in the princess’s hair. At last, you hit your hands on the altar stone. You have made a decision.

 

I mean , the thief made a decision. Or you and the thief made a decision. It will depend on who the player is and how they played. At this moment, in this ending after the ending, Prince of Persia’s best trick comes to the surface. You look at the desert surrounding the temple and see four luminous trees on top of four stone pillars. The facts are clear. If you cut down these four trees and then cut down the Tree of Life inside the temple, Elika will be brought back to life and Ahriman will be freed, in an exact repetition of the events which were the game’s catalyst. It’s not, however, the player’s decision. It’s the thief’s decision. He fell in love with Elika, and the game clearly expresses his intention.

 

Perhaps this isn’t your intention. Maybe you aren’t even there for Elika. Maybe you’re not interested in her, maybe for you the character was only a resource to help you carry out the tasks demanded by the game, to help you in fights and save your life. More probable: maybe you, like so many players, have a crush on her or have fallen in love with her, but you understand that dying to save the kingdom was the princess’s sincere wish and that resuscitating her again would be obscene, it would mean condemning her to a new life of guilt and bitterness and repeating a disaster which she has just reverted with her martyrdom.

 

The question generated extreme and opposing reactions, splitting apart the community of players who commented on the ending on websites, blogs and internet forums. There were some who argued that the programme should have given the player the choice of whether or not to resuscitate Elika. But this option doesn’t exist. If you don’t agree with the thief’s decision, with the programme’s decision, with the outcome determined by the algorithm, you only have one alternative: eject the disc before the game ends, put it back in its box and turn your console off. A quick online search will reveal that this is exactly what many people did.

 

It’s not any old game that brings a person to switch off the console so as not to be forced to see the story take a path they don’t agree with. But, if there is any truth in the argument that the algorithm precedes the plot in terms of narrative importance in computer games, respect for Elika’s wishes can’t be the only explanation for such intense and strong reactions. Actually, what enraged many players was the fact the Prince of Persia obliges us to throw away everything we did up to this point on the procedural level. You spend more than ten hours interpreting the rules of the game, understanding how you should proceed to beat it, honing your skills with the commands and actions in order to move the story onwards and restore the cursed fertile grounds, the necessity of which had been hammered into your head – and you did it, you beat the game, you finished, you executed the algorithm and arrived at the proposed outcome. And then the programme tells you no, very sorry, the boy’s fallen in love with the girl, so he brings her back to life and undoes everything. Sorry about that, nothing personal.[19]

 

Because deep down, dear player, you never decide anything. Even when you have the impression that you can decide, everything was foreseen and programmed by someone involved in the game’s development, at some point. Prince of Persia throws this entirely unromantic truth back in the face of anyone who played the game to the end: your freedom to intervene in the game is an illusion. You are only executing something that has already been written.

 

Meanwhile, for many other players the thief’s decision will seem correct. Elika doesn’t appear to be dying for anything worth the pain. For, if you recall, this abandoned world, in spite of the natural beauty and the imposing architecture, is sad and sterile. It’s plain to see that people left it behind a long time ago. And to hell with it, the thief is in love with her, as are you, after a fashion. Losing her isn’t an option. At this stage, the thief’s pragmatism appears to be the perfect antidote to the princess’s dogged idealism. Let Ahriman do what he wants with this accursed land. You are all the better for being made to take this attitude by the game, for real life also works like this: choices were made a long while ago, and it’s us who tarry in understanding the choices we made right at the start, or the choices made for us. Did you not feel, in the first minutes of the game, that you would do anything to save this girl’s life?

 

And so you take out your sword, go down the temple stairs, and run in the direction of the nearest pillar. Once more, there is a perfect fusion of agency and plot when you jump from a step towards the top of the pillar on which the luminous tree is situated, and, without thinking, press the button which makes Elika launch you into the longest jumps and – oops, she’s not there anymore. She died. You crumple up onto the floor and feel the loss of your companion hit you. The way into each of the four trees from outside is built in a curious way so that the player experiences the absence of Elika for himself in actions which can only be carried out with her aid. Now you want to bring her back to life more than ever.

 

After cutting down the four trees, you enter the temple again and cut down the Tree of Life. A single luminous sphere emerges, which you carry in silence up to the altar. Elika comes back to life as if waking from a nightmare. Sitting on a stone slab, gasping, staring into the distance, she says, hurt: ‘Why?’ The response is the silence of the look shared by the two. You feel that she understood. The scene’s silent treatment suggests the new maturity of the two characters. Adolescent verbosity is muffled by an eloquent contemplation of your surroundings. This, like so many games, is also a tale about the beginning of adult life. The darkness is already corrupting the surrounding scenery. She faints again, you take her in your arms and carry her away. In the final, unnerving scene, the thief is walking towards the camera, carrying Elika, while the temple crumbles into the ground and the monstrous figure of Ahriman rises up and flies above them, bringing a dark, gloomy sand storm with him. Elika talks to herself: ‘What is one grain of sand in the desert? What is one grain of sand in the storm?’ Ah, the sweet fatalism that goes so well with all love stories. How can you fail to be seduced by it? And yes, now, it’s game over.[20]

 

If Prince of Persia is a love story on the plot level, on the algorithm level we have the story of a plot turning the game around. It’s a paradox which makes it a game like no other: the story is flipped on its head and totally negates the value of the procedural narrative, but it is only after the player has completed every stage of the procedural narrative that the plot is capable of bringing the game to its dramatic climax. The plot’s exceptional victory only confirms that the game’s soul is in the algorithm.

 

 

Epilogue

The delay in the consolidation of the artistic and expressive potential of computer games is a cultural phenomenon that is more interesting than it appears and less understood than people think. On the one hand, many researchers, politicians, journalists and cultural critics view the formulaic and infantile fictional worlds of games with disdain and denounce their corrupting properties with an alarmism that is not so different from the way in which, in the tenth century, people felt the silent reading of books risked plunging readers into a dangerous state of daydreaming and prostration; on the other hand, aficionados solemnly swear that video games are art, but they don’t seem to understand exactly why, or at the very least show themselves incapable of arguing in favour of their position with any kind of discourse which would surpass the knowledge and jargon of those who are already initiated. For some reason, the video game has faced difficulties in transcending its cradle stage and establishing itself as a complete and coherent narrative language.

The blame for this delay resides not so much in the computer games as in our own inability to understand how their narratives work, and how they affect us. We are very good at playing and terrible at defining what exactly attracts us in these games. Firstly, it’s necessary to admit – and this will be hard for many gamers – that our primary motive for playing is not the games’ stories, characters or plots. Then, we will have to understand a little better the nature of these procedural narratives, the unique way the medium of computer games involves and excites us. Finally, we will have to understand how the traditional story or plot continues to be important, acting as a kind of catalyst that allows the games to realise all their expressive potential. Games like Shadow of the Colossus and Prince of Persia show us the way forward for an art form which unites the logic of the computer with traditional narrative, creating interactive experiences capable of generating profound emotions.

 

A few months after the release of Prince of Persia, Ubisoft Montreal released an extra episode entitled Epilogue. This little game of about three hours’ duration starts in the moments after the thief’s resuscitation of Elika. The pair seek refuge in an underground palace, and must escape once more the attacks of Ahriman, who has corrupted all that surrounds him. The king resurges, still taken over by evil, but his function in the continuation of the story remains somewhat obscure. Elika and the thief must work together again to escape from the dungeons alive. Elika isn’t happy with the situation and doesn’t want to chew the fat with you, but the thief’s arguments soften her and gradually the level of intimacy you achieved in the first game starts to re-establish itself. After many challenges, the two escape and arrive at a balcony which looks over the vast desert. This is the cue for the romantic conclusion to everything that’s happened up to this point. But Elika has other plans. She still hopes to stop Ahriman and seems to think it better that each of you go on separate paths. Hurt, you say: ‘Elika, you can’t do this alone.’ She replies: ‘I know. That is why I must find my people.’ And the girl you brought back to life out of love, against her own will, goes off and leaves you alone with the whispers of the malign god whom you yourself set free. Now swallow this. There are no choices. There is no end.

 

***

[1] Prince of Persia (2008) developed by Ubisoft Montreal for Playstation 3, Xbox360 and PC. The 2008 game is a reinvention of the series that originated with the classic Prince of Persia, a 2D platform game developed for PCs in 1989 by Broderbund, in which one also controlled a nameless protagonist who must face the dangers that await him in a tower in order to save the princess from a vizier’s clutches. The original is notable for its fluid animation and its crude representation of death – instead of disappearing from the screen with a jingle or something more symbolic, the protagonist was explicitly impaled on a stake or cut into pieces by the enemies’ swords, with copious amounts of blood, etc. The series was reformulated for the generation of 3D consoles by Ubisoft in 2003 with the release of Prince of Persia: Sands of Time for various platforms. The 2008 game maintains the thematic universe and the fluid movement, but introduces a totally new plot and characters, gets rid of the explicit violence and brings on a total aesthetic reformulation with graphics animated in the ‘cel-shading’ style, through which hand-drawn illustrations are retouched.

[2] Instruction manuals have become obsolete in modern games. Almost every game begins with a tutorial phase in which the controls and mechanics are presented in-game, that is, the instructions are integrated into the act of playing itself, at the same time as the plot is unravelled. As we shall see, discovering the rules of the game is an important factor in the enjoyment of playing, and the creators have worked hard to leave the player with the delicious sensation that he has learnt them all by himself.

[3] Although the game’s title is Prince of Persia, and everyone who writes about it calls the protagonist the Prince, I will call him the thief, because this is something he never ceases to be.

[4] The cosmogony of Prince of Persia is based on the ancient Persian religion, Zoroastrianism.

[5] If you want to watch all this on video, see here:


Always bear in mind that watching a game being played is only a tiny fraction of the experience of playing it. This is not only true of video games.

[6] Translator’s Note: Guimarães Rosa’s novel, Grande Sertão: Veredas in the original Portuguese, was published in 1956, and is widely considered to be the defining masterpiece of Brazilian modernism, and has been likened to Joyce’s Ulysses for its narrative scope and linguistic invention. Despite being considered ‘untranslatable’, an English translation by Harriet De Onís was published in 1963, although it has long been out of print.

[7] Nowadays, you can see the beautiful eyes of Samus reflected in the visor of her helmet (the TV screen itself) in the Metroid Prime series of games (Gamecube and Wii), or you can contemplate her unquestionably feminine form within a light blue latex leotard, her flaxen ponytail swaying as she (we) fight(s) against good old Princess Peach in Super Smash Bros. Brawl (Wii). [Insert comments on post-modernity, loss of innocence, etc.]

[8] Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games allow millions of players from the entire world to construct characters and take on challenges in a shared virtual world.

[9] Hello, non-gamer. It’s like this: the connectivity of platforms in the last generation introduced the concept of trophies into the most recent games. Certain specific feats completed by the gamer – kill x amount of monsters, find treasures, save x innocent people, appreciate a beautiful view – yield you treasures which can be ‘shown off’ on online networks so that other gamers can see them. Gamers like completing demanding tasks or collecting things, and then rubbing it in the faces of others. It’s like having a medal in your library certifying that you’ve read Proust five times in the original.

[10] Flower (PS3) is another game which uses the idea of restoring each setting to achieve immersion and agency. Controlling gusts as if you were the consciousness of the wind itself, you fly over magnificent scenery pushing petals to make flowers and plants sprout, returning natural life to a world corrupted by human engineering. From the simple pleasure of swaying grass to the climactic ending in which skyscrapers in a grey metropolis are detonated by coloured explosions of petals, Flower is a masterpiece of interactive narrative.

[11] It is somewhat melancholic to play games from the Uncharted series and confirm that their unquestionable technical and artistic excellence results in little more than a playable film. The experience they provide is as fun, flashy and frustrating as going to see Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull: the affection for conventions is so great that all the attention to detail and fussing ends up being anticlimactic.

[12] Thematically, most games are still made with the young majority of the audience in mind, but this trend has begun to change with the ageing of gamers in past decades and with the general increasing popularity of computer games in general. According to North American research, eighty-one per cent of adults between 18 and 29 years of age played computer games while a solid sixty per cent of 30-49 year olds also played. (http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1048/video-games-adults-are-players-too)

[13] You can download it at: http://hcsoftware.sourceforge.net/passage/. If you are able to play it on your computer before reading the description which follows this note, do it.

[14] http://www.destructoid.com/-i-passage-i-the-greatest-five-minute-long-game-ever-made-58961.phtml

[15] 2007, Harvard University Press. Can also be read in its entirety at http://futureofthebook.org/gamertheory2.0/

[16] In the majority of games in which the avatar can grab hold of something, all that’s needed to carry out the action is the touch of a button. In Shadow of the Colossus, the fact that we need to keep pressing down a button the whole time that Wander remains clutching onto the bodies of the innocent colossi means that the player never loses sight of the willpower and insistence needed to kill them. In games, the control style can be a metaphor too.

[17] In gaming jargon, these are level bosses.

[18] Not that it really matters. Concubine’s life story is merely a mask for her function in the game. Wark: ‘The plot is merely an alibi.’

[19] A typical comment taken from a YouTube video illustrates this: ‘Ok the game made no sense for me, you have to do all this shit and he ends up freeing the darkness again! *shakes head* I’m never going to understand this.’

[20] The ending can be seen in the following video. Some of the longer passages, like the part when you move through the corridor with Elika in your arms as the credits roll, are edited out, but it’s enough to get a general idea. Notice the gods whispering comments that both chide and encourage.

 



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


is a Brazilian writer, translator and editor, and one of the authors on Granta's The Best of Young Brazilian Authors list. His novel, Blood-Drenched Beard was published by Hamish Hamilton in May. This piece was originally featured in Serrote, a Brazilian literary magazine, in 2010.



Rahul Bery teaches Spanish and Welsh in the Rhondda Valley.